Emilia Sanmiguel turns 5 this month, and she has a lot of questions about dying. She recently asked her mother what it feels like to be shot. There was a heartbreaking reason why.
In September, her father Javier Sanmiguel was killed as he tried to help victims of a car crash outside his family’s east side St. Paul home. One of them shot Javier, 31, who left behind a wife, Kayla, and four young children, including Emilia, who now asks: "What does it feel like when you die? Will it hurt?"
Javier was one of 31 people killed in a near-record number of St. Paul homicides in 2019. The number includes one man fatally shot by police. As city officials struggle to stem that violence in 2020, interviews with family members of two men shot and killed reveal the damage done extends far beyond the bullets.
Kayla Sanmiguel, 33, is careful to tell Emilia her father did not feel anything when he was shot. He died right away. The pain for Kayla and her family, however, lingers.
"It's been pretty hellish,” she told MPR News recently. “Life used to be an exciting adventure and now it feels like drudgery. I hear that that gets better, and I'm hopeful that it does. I had the best husband and the kids had the best papa. [It’s] a little bit overwhelming to think about what the children have lost.”
Bible study, then gunfire
The Sanmiguel shooting came during a spasm of violence in St. Paul last fall — three shootings, three dead in the span of nine hours.
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“It was shocking. It was outrageous. And it was an anomaly,“ St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell told reporters after announcing arrests of two 15-year-olds in one of those shootings, along with a plan to beef up patrols and refocus the department’s energy on solving all the killings.
A week later, 41-year-old RayVell Carter was leaving St. Albans Church of God in Christ after Bible study when gunfire erupted. He was shot as he walked with his father and young daughter.
Police officers rushing to the scene in the Summit-University neighborhood found a trail of blood that led to Carter.
His death was the sixth homicide in the city within 17 days.
St. Paul police are still investigating Carter’s death. His mother, Pamela Carter, believes justice will come to her son's killer and any accomplices, but she's not looking for revenge.
“I don't want to see these children lost because I believe they're young and reckless and not even understanding the real harm of what they're doing,” she said. “I would like to give them a chance to change.”
Pamela Carter said her son had that chance. He’d gone to prison twice on drug possession charges. He’d lost his way then but eventually got back on the right path, she said.
“Not everything in his life was perfect. Neither [was] mine. But he was a great son, very compassionate toward his parents, looked out for us, took care of us,” she said. “If we needed anything, he was available to do it.”
St. Paul-born and a Highland Park High School graduate, RayVell Carter lived in Roseville. Those he left behind include three children, a younger sister and a big extended family.
Carter had a comedic streak, he liked to write music, read and research his interests, his mother said. That included working on developing a financial literacy website. He was certified as an electrician's apprentice but didn't pursue work as an electrician because he landed a job as distributor for Coca-Cola.
As she mourns, Pamela Carter said she believes people need to recover their moral compass.
“When I grew up in this community, everybody went to church. Now, hardly nobody in this community goes to church. That's a huge difference,” she said. “People may say that doesn't matter. Yes, it does because it teaches you principles and values that sometimes you may not even get at home.”
‘Love your family’
Kayla Sanmiguel, Javier and their children were living in a duplex in St. Paul's Payne-Phalen neighborhood at the time of the shooting. It was a place they'd purchased, remodeled and rented out.
In addition to teaching himself real estate and construction, Javier had worked in restaurant management and as an interpreter.
“He just cared about people and had a more optimistic and compassionate view than almost anybody I've ever met. He wanted to do justice to anything he was a part of,” Kayla said. “If he was going to do something, it was going to be 110 percent."
They'd been hoping to buy more properties nearby. Javier believed that investing in the neighborhood and paying attention to local issues was a way for care for the people around him, his wife said.
Recently, however, they became increasingly concerned about the neighborhood’s future. There was more vandalism. A family they knew nearby had their home shot at by a stranger. Some people were driving too fast. Kayla and Javier had been looking to move.
When they heard the car crash outside their home Sept. 9, Javier immediately jumped up and hurried out the door to see if he could help. Kayla called 911 and was out the door herself within a few minutes. That's when she heard the gunshot.
"I kind of knew it was him. I don't know how. I just figured, if somebody was right there, it was going to be him," Kayla said.
Then she heard more gunfire.
“[It was] a frantic, surreal, horrible, horrible war-zone feel. … We're hiding behind a smushed car and I'm thinking, 'My goodness. He's shooting at my house with my children sleeping in that front room," she said.
Lionel Eaton was charged with second- and third-degree murder in Javier's death. Prosecutors say the 27-year-old crashed his SUV into the back of a woman's sedan, causing her to hit several unoccupied vehicles.
Witnesses say when Javier and others looked into the back of Eaton's vehicle and tried to open the hatch, Eaton allegedly fired a handgun from inside.
Eaton's mother has told officers that her son had been acting erratically and she was concerned he was having a mental health crisis, according to court documents. Eaton allegedly told police he was rammed by another car and feared for his life.
Kayla Sanmiguel said St. Paul needs more police officers.
"Rec centers are currently not the answer because we're in crisis mode,” she said. “We're not really doing preventative care right now because we don't have the resources to cover everything.”
As her family moves forward from terrible loss, Kayla said she keeps reminding herself of the specific combination of humility and gratitude that made her husband unique.
Sanmiguel said she likes to think if everyone were a little more like Javier, it would solve a lot of problems in St. Paul and elsewhere.
“Go home and love your family,” she said. “That's how you fix the big problems.”